Central eighth grader has a guitar and a dream

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Central eighth grader Jesse Polkinghorn stands with his acoustic Yamaha FG800 guitar. It’s one of many instruments Polkinghorn plays.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


It was on Feb. 21 when Central eighth grader Jesse Polkinghorn performed the national anthem to kick off the Class 2A district final game between Beckman Catholic and MFL MarMac to the delight and overwhelming fanfare of the crowd in attendance. Comments ranged from “He is so awesome!” “Gives me chills!” “Way to go!” and “That’s awesome!” to “I love this!” and “Great job!”


Jesse’s journey to the Central gym with his electric guitar and love of music and performing originated with the trombone, which he started playing after joining band in fifth grade, at the age of 10. He chose the instrument because he thought it was the “most unique” and because he thought the slide would be fun. He recalled being allowed to take the instrument home for the first time, where he played it. And then he played it again and again, until he mastered it. 


Since then, mastering instruments has become sort of a side hobby, with a list including guitar, piano, cello, violin, saxophone, baritone, tuba, trombone, trumpet, drums, mandolin, clarinet, banjo, flute and countless others. But his favorite instrument to play is the guitar. Whether it’s electric or acoustic often depends on how his “energy” is, but Jesse is partial to his acoustic Yamaha FG800, with its “simple and rich” sound.


Jesse’s list of influences is equally lengthy, and considering his youth, consists of bands from decades past—classics that predate the turn of the millennium. He came across music from the 70s, 80s and 90s on YouTube. It’s where he found Led Zeppelin, who he credits for introducing him to metal/rock, and there is an admiration for the band’s combining instruments to make an “amazing sound.” 


Then there is Aerosmith, who Jesse learned about from Jenni Francis, someone he considers an aunt. The song “Dream On” has since become a staple of every performance. 


Jesse’s biggest “inspiration for music” was and remains “to this day” Nirvana. It’s also who he patterns his music and lyrics after when writing songs with the electric guitar. 


“Nirvana’s tone is the biggest reason why I love them. Kurt Cobain’s chorus pedal put a huge impact on my music taste, and I love how they just put random chords together to make it sound upbeat, and Kurt Cobain’s grunge voice sounds amazing,” Jesse explained. 


However, his individual style of play resembles that of other classics, including Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Steve Vai. One thing all of the aforementioned artists have in common is that you “can feel the music emotionally,” which is what draws Jesse to them. These influences were also discovered via YouTube, and ever since, he has focused on how they play and “how they feel the music.”


“What I mean by ‘how they play’ is how they feel the music. Even if they make a mistake, it sounds awesome, and they have their own style, and each of them are unique,” Jesse said. 


Simply learning and crafting a style is not all Jesse does. He also performs. His first live performance was a little over two years ago in Northwood, at the Brewery and Taproom, where he showed up to see Jeff Reinartz, a singer/songwriter from Austin, Minn., who has been performing live for over 30 years. During the show, Jesse found his way on stage after his godfather, Todd Leanoard, who is also a musician and lead guitarist for the band 13 on 7, put in a request for Jesse to get on stage and perform a song.


“He requested me to go up there and perform a song, because he knew that I needed to get out of my comfort zone. I performed the song ‘Dream On’ by Aerosmith,” Jesse said. 


What helped get Jesse out of that comfort zone was pretending he was performing all by himself. Amid the stage fright and nerves, he powered through the song, and was lauded with cheers after it was done. The adrenaline rush of the moment led to some tears because it was a massive moment for the young musician, having never done something so spontaneous. 


On the flip side, it was also something he learned he could do and do well. Ever since, Jesse has looked forward to hyping up the crowd. 


“I love to hear everyone cheer and have a great time while rocking out. It’s worth doing because, not only do I get to do something I love, I get to have fun while doing it, and have everyone jump around,” Jesse explained.


The experience also prepared him for when things go wrong, which they often do when performing live music or making mistakes the crowd might notice, but often never do. 


Such a situation has occurred, but Jesse handled it seamlessly. It happened while he was playing “Sweet Child O’ Mine” with the California cover band The Trip in Northwood. During the song, a string broke on Jesse’s guitar, but he didn’t let it affect him and he played through it “without any problems.” 


In total, Jesse believes he’s played over 30 times in Iowa, including several Central events, at Founder’s Park and at Elkader’s Farmers Market. That happens to be his favorite performance because, as he tells it, “it was a beautiful day” and his grandparents watched him play a list of songs that included “Thunderstruck,” “Nothing Else Matters,” “Wanted Dead or Alive” and, of course, “Dream On.” 


Interestingly, Jesse never seeks out performances, instead waiting to be asked. That was the case for the performance at the district basketball game, which came about after Central Principal Aaron Reinhart asked if would be willing to play the “Star Spangled Banner.”


“I wasn’t going to give that opportunity up,” Jesse said. “When I played, I was completely lost in the moment and having so much fun.”


When he isn’t performing, Jesse divides his time between sports, including basketball and track, while also being in jazz band and FFA. Some of his free time is also spent writing his own songs, because the ultimate goal is to become a songwriter and musician and start a band or be a solo act. So far, Jesse has written three original songs, one of which is titled “The Rains.” His favorite line is “the rain’s the reason I shine.” 


“I would love to be famous because I want to get recognized by doing something I love,” Jesse said.

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